Thursday, May 25, 2017

Prehistoric Groundhog

Groundhog Day happens in February, when everybody - it seems - wants to know ‘Will this winter never end?’ How groundhogs ever got associated with predicting the end of winter is a mystery to me. Did any of them ever get a degree in climatology? No, not a one. They just lay in their borrow, blissfully sleeping through the cold when someone sticks his hand in, grabs one and pulls it out. Still blinking, the confused and shocked groundhog is held up high as a display, a crowd cheers and claps, and then... I don’t know, maybe they stuff the rodent with sweet treats as a reward for being a good sport. Not that the poor guy had any choice in the matter.

I started thinking, ‘Where do groundhogs come from?’ Yes, I know, from mommy and daddy groundhogs. What I mean is, millions of years ago, human ancestors were about the size and shape of a mouse, and they lived underground. Humans are a lot bigger now, and very few of us live underground. So, if we went back to that time - roughly 66 million years ago - would our ancestors be sharing burrows with ancient groundhogs? What would a groundhog from that long ago be like?

66 million years ago, all the southern hemisphere landmasses were gathered together into one supercontinent called Gondwana. Dinosaurs were still around, so I can’t blame our ancestors for seeking safety underground. Groundhogs of that day weighed 20 pounds (about twice the size of today’s groundhogs), had a skull 5 inches long and massive chewing muscles. Let’s see somebody pull one of those out of a sound sleep and hold it aloft!

A sample skull of the creature was found in a rock from Madagascar. This ancient groundhog was probably the largest mammal known for that time period, and lived on seeds, roots and nutty fruits. Its teeth included sharp incisors and wear-proof molars. Large eyes let it see in low light, and the intricate inner ear indicates it could hear higher frequencies than modern man can. A large nasal cavity means it had a keen sense of smell, and most likely it was agile. (The better to dodge large dinosaur feet?)

Alas, that particular rodent has gone extinct. So I’m not sure why it’s called a groundhog. I would assume a ‘prehistoric groundhog’ would be an ancestor of today’s groundhogs, but apparently, it’s only another branch on the family tree of groundhogs. A branch that broke, leaving other branches to fill in the hole.

Well, it did live in Madagascar, so it might have fallen prey to a blind snake, predatory frog or vegetarian crocodile, which were also Madagascar specialties.

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